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Women at risk from possible serial killer

December 11th, 2006

Dr Petra

The sad news today is that Suffolk police have found the body of a female murder victim. The unnamed woman is the third victim to be discovered by police. In the last fortnight the bodies of 19-year-old Tania Nicol and 25-year-old Gemma Adams were also discovered. Police are still investigating whether these crimes are linked, but haven’t ruled out the possibility of a serial killer. Another woman, 24-year-old Paula Clennell has been reported missing.

My thoughts are with the families and friends of those missing or murdered. We can only imagine the grief and distress they must be feeling.

The murdered women were all prostitutes, and today Suffolk police issued advice to all sex workers in and around the Ipswich area: “My message to you is simple – stay off the streets. If you are out alone at night, you are putting yourself in danger.”

Like sex workers don’t already know this.

The problem for many prostitutes is the over-policing of areas and changing in legal approaches to clamp down on street prostitution means it’s difficult for sex workers to use basic safety techniques like working in pairs or taking the time to size up a potential punter. It makes working on street increasingly isolated and sex workers more vulnerable.

Increasing fines often keep women in prostitution. In the run-up to Christmas many sex workers will be working to pay for their family’s presents, in fact women who don’t work the rest of the year may work around Christmas for extra cash. This is a well-known issue and it’s astonishing that the police haven’t taken this into account.

Both prostitutes and punters may well have information the police could use to catch the killer, but most will not come forward if they fear arrest, fines or imprisonment. The police have launched an amnesty for sex workers and punters, although whether they’ll be trusted enough for people to come forward remains to be seen. If you do have any information about the case there is a telephone number to call in confidence: 07764 210572.

Here are some tips from current and ex sex workers on how to stay safe on the streets:

* Let someone know where you’ll be (e.g. rough area you’ll be working from, the time you’ll be out and the time you expect to be back), arrange to call or text when you are home safely. Arrange for them to call for assistance if you’ve not checked in on time and they can’t reach you by phone.

* If possible work in twos or threes and note down the name, make and number of any car your partner gets into, or try and take a description of any punter who’s on foot.

* If you have any suspicion about a punter let other workers know (many areas have an ‘Ugly Mugs’ or ‘Dodgy Punters’ campaign where you can report someone who you think is dangerous).

* Get advice on safer sex work from current or ex sex workers, either those you meet on street or you could join the Sex Workers E Group to share advice and support.

* Pay attention to your surroundings so you notice anything unusual.

* Where possible avoid being out (working) when you’ve been drinking or using drugs which can make it more difficult to stay alert and negotiate safer sex. If you want to quit using drugs or alcohol your outreach worker or local drugs clinic can offer advice or support.

* If you are attacked seek help as soon as you can. Preferably you should tell the police but if you don’t feel able to do this speak to a friend, an outreach worker or a doctor or nurse. If you have been injured visit your nearest hospital emergency department, if you have been raped contact your local rape crisis centre and the police. Policing in this area has changed and the police should take anything you say seriously, the same goes for healthcare professionals. Don’t feel if you were attacked it was your fault; get support from friends and family where possible.

Useful resources

The Network of Sex Work Projects has documents on health and safety issues for sex workers (including male sex workers), including this guide on making sex work safe.

The International Union of Sex Workers has details of organisational and legal issues around prostitution.

The UK Network of Sex Work Projects is a voluntary organisation bringing together agencies and individuals who work with prostitutes.

Magdalene Meretrix’s book ‘Turning Pro’ (Greenery Press) contains useful information about sex work, including a safety guide.

Annie Sprinkle’s How to cure sex worker burnout covers wider issues of sex worker well-being.

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